Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Spirit Handkerchief and It's History

There is a wonderful effect in magic that has found it's way into the acts of many performers called The Dancing Handkerchief. Probably the most iconic performer to present the effect was Harry Blackstone Sr., and then later his son Blackstone Jr.. Even David Copperfield made a hit out of this little wonder.  But you might be surprised just how many well known performers and hundreds of lesser knowns performed this effect.

I tried to track down the origins of the mystery, originally known as The Spirit Handkerchief. Magicpedia lists Nevil Maskelyene as the creator. I can find no reference in magic literature to Nevil Maskelyne having been the creator of the trick.
Anna Eva Fay
thought I had the answer but then a second source listed a different name. Originally, I thought that Anna Eva Fay created this mystery. She began her career as a fake spirit medium and this type of effect would have been ideal for her 'Light Seance' segment.

However, here is what I do know. In the 1870s, Anna Eva Fay was in England presenting her seances. She had encountered John Nevil Maskelyne, who was busy exposing all spirit mediums. There is a brief account of their altercation in White Magic by Jasper Maskelyne. Shortly after this Anna Eva Fay returned to America and for a time was thought to be English, though she was actually from Ohio.

So who created the Spirit Dancing Hank? Looks like the winner is Anna Eva Fay. But I think I know why Maskelyne's name is connected to it. The Dancing Hank was often presented in conjunction with another effect which was sort of a mini-Spirit Cabinet. Two chairs were placed on stage. A sheet of glass was balanced upon the two chairs and then a small cabinet was placed upon the glass. Inside was a bell and a slate. This effect was the creation of Maskelyne.  And it may have been Frederick Eugene Powell who first presented these two together in the United States. This information comes from Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers In The Theatre by David Price.

I do know that Harry Kellar began presenting these two effects together in 1894. He called it The
Cassadaga Propaganda. And from several different accounts, his Dancing Hank routine was a big hit. It's hard to say where he got it from, though he may have seen Maskelyne present it as he was known for stealing material from the Maskelyne show.

I found an interesting article in The Linking Ring Vol 40 #8, on a lesser known magician, John Grdina. In the article it says that Grdina taught none other than Harry Blackstone Sr. the Dancing Hank and whenever Blackstone was in Cleveland, he would mention it to his audiences. Grdina, as a youth apparently saw Harry Kellar first present the effect. He later would create some kind of version of his own.

Blackstone Sr. presented the Dancing Hank so well, that he is associated with the effect. His son, Harry Jr. also made a showpiece out of the routine. Others have presented the original version including Harry Willard, John Calvert and Howard Thurston. But no one made as big a mark with it as did Harry Blackstone Sr.. Below is the video of Harry Jr. presenting the hank, exactly as his father before him had presented it. (The person who uploaded the video fast-forwards through a bit of the early section, so just ignore that.)

In the 1950s, along came Ralph Adams. He created a more elaborate version of the Dancing Hank that was different from the Blackstone version. Doug Henning later used the Ralph Adam's version in his shows for many years. Though it was still a piece of cloth becoming animated, it was a different routine from the earlier versions. Below is a shorter version of the Henning routine. Usually, Doug presented it onstage with one of his dancers.

Then in the late 1970s David Copperfield debuted a new take on this classic effect. His version was the creation of Don Wayne and it combined aspects of the original with a sort of animated 'zombie' like effect. The Don Wayne version became all the rage for a number of years. Incidentally, the Don Wayne version may have been an updated version of the Joe Karson version known as Voodoo. One reason I think the Copperfield routine became so iconic was that he created a story based routine or a vignette. The magic was an important aspect of telling the overall story.

And speaking of updating versions, the latest and most advanced version of the effect started with the Don Wayne method and flew out to the stratosphere thanks to magic creator Sean Bogunia. Sean has taken the basic effect, added multiple methods and truly brought the animated handkerchief to life in ways that no one ever thought possible. Because of his innovations, many performers present the Dancing Hank in their shows today.

I'm not certain that anyone has really gotten the notoriety with the effect that the Blackstone's did. Though Sean is sure known as Mr. Hanky these days. This is by far a complete history of the effect but it does give you a good overview of the dancing hank through the years. Others have had innovations along the way as well, like Karrel Fox and Steve Dusheck. And a multitude of performers have presented this great effect. One thing is for certain,  over 100 years later the effect of causing a bit of cloth or handkerchief to come to life and animate and dance is still an amazing and popular illusion.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Unknown Houdini Illusion For the 1927 Tour

While doing research earlier in the year for my Maro Project, I came upon the photo above. At the time, I didn't make the historical connection. The photo is of magician John Grdina standing with a Production Cabinet built and used by Edward Maro. He purchased the cabinet from Mrs. Maro after the death of her husband.

The photo appeared in the Linking Ring and actually has caption underneath that is incorrect. But one thing it did say was that the cabinet was sold to Houdini. Houdini was a collector, so at first I didn't think much of this other than to say it was the only connection I could find of Houdini to Maro.

But then today I discovered a very small mention of the cabinet in the May 1962 issue of MUM. In the article on John Grdina, it says "He loaned Houdini his 3-sided Maro Spirit Cabinet, which you might have seen presented had Houdini lived for another season."

I think the cabinet that Leslie Guest in the MUM article is speaking of is Maro's The Mystery of Aryan Illusion, which is the cabinet in the photo above. The cabinet above is a production box. Here is how John Grdina used it according to the Oct 1960 issue of The Linking Ring. "He opened his act by producing his wife from the cabinet after first showing it empty." In that same paragraph it says "He later sold the cabinet to Houdini."

Because of how deceptive this illusion is, it can be presented as a spirit cabinet. In fact, Maro may have presented it that way, which would explain the square fabric window in the middle of the door. Maro was known for presenting a lot of spirit effects in his shows.

I have not been able to find a photo of Houdini with the cabinet, but two different references to Houdini and the cabinet are enough for me to believe he got this for his 1927 '3 In One Show' Tour. Whether or not he purchased it or it was on loan, I don't know because there are conflicting accounts. But I do know Grdina was trying to sell it as he had placed numerous ads in magic periodicals trying to unload it. He was apparently trying to downsize his act and go to a more portable and practical type of act. Below is an ad that appeared in the Feb 1913 issue of The Sphinx.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Cool Graphic On The History of Famous Stage Illusions

Here is a very cool graphic created by S├ębastien Ocana from Paris France. I had a little trouble getting the image up on my site, so I had to break it into several shorter images. I hope you like it. IF you'd like to contact Sebastien, you can reach him at Here is the original link to his graphic.   This image was used with his permission.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Maro's Ghost!


I’ve only shared this story with one other person. Looking back, it might have been an ideal Halloween story to share. At any rate, I’ll share with you the story of my experience with Maro’s Ghost.

Back on September 19th, I was in Leland Michigan performing at the Old Art Building, also known as the W.T. Best Theatre. I was there to present two magic shows during the day and one lecture on the Great Maro in the evening. When I had arrived one of the folks there told me the story of the ghost in the building. They jokingly wondered if it was Maro. I was even told that an outdoor video camera once captured images of mysterious orbs in the yard area one weekend. I chuckled, as I usually do at such things.

Fast forward to the afternoon performances and the first show went quite smoothly. The second show was coming up and I was busy resetting props and making sure everything was where it needed to be. Once everything was set, I looked out to see how many people were there. We held the curtain an extra minute or two to allow for more folks to come in.

At showtime I opened with one of my signature routines. A magic routine that I have been doing for well over 20 years. All was going well until near the end of the routine when something happened that never happened before. By the way, the trick was a giant version of the Linking Rings using Hula Hoops. The calamity that happened at the end of the routine was that all 4 hoops seemed to knot themselves together. I don’t know how else to describe it. They were interlocked in such a way that I couldn’t get them apart at all. I pulled and tugged and finally held them up in the clump as if that was the end. I doubt the audience knew what had happened. But in my mind I was befuddled.

After the show, I went back to the clump of hoops to figure out what had caused them to join together in such an odd fashion. But, as I picked them up, they were once again four separate hoops, not stuck together, not joined in anyway.

I have since attempted to get the hoops tied/knotted up in the same way and cannot duplicate it no matter how I try. I have a specific series of movements that are identical every time and it simply does not allow for this odd occurrence. Yet, that afternoon, something unusual did happen.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blog articles, the evening’s lecture on Maro went off without incident. Everything went perfectly. But then again, Maro was the star of that program. Do I really think it was a ghost? No. But it has left me scratching my head ever since.

I wonder if anyone read my article about Maro in the November Linking Ring? I've not seen it and would love to know how it turned out. The next episode of The Magic Detective Youtube Show will have video from Leland Michigan. And I think I've finally figured out the proper format for doing that show. The show will go up on Youtube as it has in the past and the blog will contain further information not covered on the show. And I'll include a link to the video, but I won't be embedding the video in the articles anymore. Hopefully that works out better than I've done it in the past!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Radio Interview: Houdini and the Spirits w/ The Houdini Brothers!

Ok, I say 'Houdini Brothers' jokingly, but it was great fun. John Cox and I appeared on the same show tonight, Jeff Richards: Paranormal. We were interviewed about Houdini and his Crusade Against The Spiritualists. It was a really enjoyable interview. The host did a fantastic job splitting up the questions and he came to the show knowledgeable about the subject matter. John Cox as you know runs the blog site. And Dean Carnegie, well, he has a lil blog about magic history somewhere, lol.

If you missed it or weren't in Canada listening in. HERE is a link to the interview!
You'll want to pick the Nov 15th, 2015 link